JUBA, Sudan – The rebel leader in Southern Sudan who government officials accused of committing a massacre last week said Thursday that the southern army — not his forces — broke a cease-fire the two sides signed last month.
George Athor said he doesn't want to fight, but that southern government forces, known as the SPLA, keep attacking his men. He denied accusations from the south that he is being armed by the northern government in Khartoum.
"We want peace. If the SPLA can accept to live with us and resolve it, then we are ready and that is why for the last four days you have not heard of any fighting," Athor told The Associated Press by satellite phone in his first public comments since the government accused his fighters of a massacre.
The southern government said Athor's men attacked civilians and security forces last week in Jonglei state, killing 211 people. The government said 30 of Athor's men also died. The fighting broke a Jan. 5 cease-fire the two sides signed four days before the south's Jan. 9-15 independence referendum that will see the south become a new country in July.
Athor, a former deputy chief of staff in the southern army, told AP that the agreement stipulates that the SPLA, or Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, cannot move troops into a cease-fire zone.
But Athor said the SPLA moved 190 men into the zone and attacked three of Athor's bases — in Koliet, Kolnyang and Dor — that the cease-fire named as "assembly points" for Athor's men pending integration into the south's army.
"They attacked us in Kolnyang on Feb. 9 and as a result we pursued them" to New Fangak, said Athor, "We maintained the town and they kept attacking. When I heard that many civilians lost their lives, I told my forces to withdraw."
The south says about 160 civilians were killed in last week's violence. Athor said he told the U.N. his men would stay in their current positions.
Athor, a former high-ranking officer in the southern army, launched an insurrection after losing his bid for governor of Jonglei state last April. Last September he rejected southern president Salva Kiir's amnesty offer.
Athor has consistently criticized the southern leadership and called for reform. He is known to have strong allies within the army.
With the south only a few months from declaring independence and forming the world<s newest country, Athor reiterated his political demands Thursday. He said if southern political leaders install democracy, "we don't have any problem."
Athor said he wants to participate in the upcoming transitional government and in the new interim constitutional review committee. He also wants his men to be integrated into the SPLA and a date set for elections following July's independence declaration.
Last month's independence referendum produced a nearly unanimous vote for secession. Since results were made official on Feb. 7, a wave of violence has wracked the south in several strategic and oil-rich areas, raising concerns of southern instability ahead of the region's independence declaration July 9.
Top southern officials have blamed the uptick in violence on the Khartoum government, saying that the northern Sudanese army has provided Athor with weapons and supplies to sustain his rebellion. Southern officials have not produced evidence to support the recent claims, and the Khartoum government has called the accusations baseless.
"I would say that if there is anybody who claims that I am being armed by Khartoum then let him produce the evidence," Athor told AP. He said he has not visited Khartoum since launching his revolt last spring.
Fangak County remains tense. A former southern militia leader, Gabriel Tanginye, has moved into the area after family members were killed in the recent violence. Tanginye was a Khartoum-sponsored warlord who burned and looted southern villages along the Nile River during the 1983-2005 north-south civil war.
Although he accepted an amnesty and reintegration package with the southern army late last year, it is now unclear which side Tanginye is fighting for.
Athor warned that if the southern army continues to fight, "there will be grave results."